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Review: A Trio of Silent Film Releases

Rejoice, silent film fans! It’s always good news when a nice, restored version of a silent film is released on DVD or blu-ray. The last couple of months have been a high water mark for big releases, with three films getting high quality releases from people who do silent films right. So here they, are a look at all three recent releases: The Lodger, When Knighthood was in Flower and Zaza.

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The Lodger: A Story of the London Fog (Criterion Collection)

The Lodger was already readily available on DVD and online, but any film getting the Criterion treatment is welcoming news. That’s especially true for such a notable film, one that is usually called the first true Alfred Hitchcock film. And in many ways, that’s dead on accurate. Packed with suspense, the potential for a wrong man scenario is at the heart of it, along with a cool blonde (and an obsession with blondes) at the center. Many of Hitchcock’s early films are atypical in plot, but The Lodger feels very much in his wheelhouse.

And it’s also a little unique for him too. Hitch usually did not delve into actual murder mysteries–his suspense typically relies on knowledge the audience has, rather than through mystery. This is very effective here, though, and it still provides plenty of suspense even if the viewer already knows the outcome. Look for some unique ways of adding suspense in a silent film, like an overhead shot Ivor Novello (the lodger) pacing in his room above.

Novello, a romantic leading man of the time, plays a difficult role well. On the one hand, his romance with Daisy (played by June Tripp) is sweet. And yet, there’s always a big air of suspicion around him, thanks to some mysterious elements of his character.

The Lodger has been extraordinarily well preserved and the Criterion version is one of the crispest you’ll ever see of a silent film. The disc also contains another 1927 Hitchcock feature, Downhill. It, too, is of almost pristine quality. This is a flawless release of an essential film.

When Knighthood was in Flower (Undercrank Productions)

Unlike The Lodger, it’s been close to a hundred years since When Knighthood was in Flower has been widely seen. Now from the Library of Congress and Ben Model, this Marion Davies blockbuster can be seen again. And boy, is it ever worth it.

A big hit that helped establish Davies as a star, Knighthood is very big indeed. Playing a princess and sister to Henry VIII, Davies is in love with a commoner but must marry an elderly king. The production is a lavish one to behold, with massive set pieces throughout and exquisite costumes. The film itself is just as good. Often as funny as it is dramatic, Davies runs wild the whole film, bursting with personality no matter the situation. With this commanding performance, it’s no surprise this film was big for her career.

Another pristine print, the film is helped visually by well placed hand-tinting at the climax. As usual, Ben Model supplies the perfect fitting score. The film has not yet been released, but it can be purchased beginning on July 25th here.

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Zaza (Kino Lorber)

Speaking of running wild, Zaza is the Gloria Swanson show and she goes full throttle the entire time. A charismatic showgirl, Zaza is determined to be with a debonair diplomat (H.B. Warner), although it proves to be harder than she ever realized. Whether on stage commanding a crowd or suffering a setback in her romance, Swanson plays it over the top to the point of it being highly comical. Only at the film’s climax do we get any real signs of sentimentality.

Over the top and comical is the order of the day for much of the film, down to the costuming. Swanson is constantly clad in elaborate outfits marked with a giant Z, at one point even wearing jewelry throughout her hair. The film’s high point in comedy is also it’s peak of wackiness: Swanson and Mary Thurman engage in a wild brawl that involves their clothes being ripped off.

Zaza won’t ever be confused as high quality dramatic entertainment. But as funny, goofy cinema it hits just the right spot. This print also survives very well, and is well accompanied with music from the original music cues.

 

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